What I've been reading, featuring corrective narratives of the migrant caravan and the American frontier; and “Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso

Late post because I lost an early draft from two weeks ago. I also initially had a bullet-point on David Wallace-Wells’ climate change book here but it morphed into its own post.

  • Why wasn’t the migrant caravan covered this way from the beginning?

San Pedro Sula may not be well known, but from 2011 to 2014 it was the most violent city in the world. The only thing to do there is escape. The crime syndicates, which have complete control over the region and the power of life and death over its people, have in recent years plunged Honduras into an unofficial state of war…. President Trump talks about the migrant caravan as if it were an attempted invasion. In reality, Honduras and Central America have paid an enormous price precisely because of US policies.

…This is what people are fleeing from, this landscape that seems to offer no future but killing or being killed. Despite their varied histories, the migrants all have in common the desire—or rather the need—to escape the violence of the drug gangs and the lack of work and opportunity in their country.

…Jakelin Caal Maquin, age seven, was healthy when she left Raxruhá, Guatemala, with her father. On the evening of December 6, both were arrested, along with 161 other migrants, by the US border patrol in New Mexico, after illegally crossing the border. A few hours later, while in the custody of American border agents, Jakelin began suffering from a high fever and seizures; she was taken by helicopter to a hospital, where she died the next day from septic shock, dehydration, and liver failure. She had traveled two thousand miles, crossing the Mexican desert, enduring weeks of exhaustion and hardship to reach the US, because she knew that beyond its border she could hope for something better than the future her own country offered. She died in the very place she could have begun a new life.

…Despite Trump’s many assertions, there is no evidence that criminals or drug traffickers formed any part of the caravan. The journalists who followed it have consistently reported that it is made up of ordinary, desperate people who are not criminals but are fleeing from criminals. Making these people seem dangerous, for example by claiming that the caravan has been infiltrated by “unknown Middle Easterners,” does, however, serve Trump’s interests, because it allows him to resort to emergency measures to keep the migrants from entering or remaining in the United States.

CBS also reported last week that 4,556 complaints over the past four years alleged unaccompanied migrant children were sexually abused in US custody

The New York Review article makes note of the diminishing numbers at refugee camps at the border and cite data from Mexican authorities: from a caravan originally estimated to be about 10,000 strong, 1,300 migrants returned home, 2,900 received humanitarian visas from Mexico and are living there legally, and 2,600 were arrested by US Border Patrol for attempting to cross illegally. The New York Times explored these migrants’ decisions to return to their home countries, attempt an illegal crossing, or settle in Mexico in the face of increasingly stringent policy under President Trump. It suggests that most of the asylum seekers who have given up on entering the United States were typically economic migrants who saw opportunity in joining the Honduran exodus:

Mexican officials said the data on people who have deferred or given up their quest for asylum in the United States reinforced an idea that is often raised by Mr. Trump: that many caravan members are not truly desperate for protection.

Immigrant advocates said that hype and false promises had attracted a group that was somewhat unrepresentative of typical asylum seekers. But they pointed to the roughly 4,000 members who had successfully entered the United States and had at least requested protected status to argue that most had legitimate claims.

Michelle Brané, the director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, warned that while Mr. Trump’s tough policies may discourage the undeserving, they might also endanger people who need protection. She said they would likely drive vulnerable migrants into the arms of human traffickers, who promise to provide passage into the United States.

“It may look like it’s working in the short term,” Ms. Brané said, “But I don’t think it’s a long-term solution. It’s driving people further into the shadows and that’s exactly the opposite of what we want.”

It recalls this New Yorker article from last year summarizing an outstanding effort by 2016 MacArthur Fellow Prof. Sarah Stillman and her graduate journalism students at Columbia to make a record of migrants who were deported to their violent deaths “with the help of border agents, immigration judges, politicans, and US voters”:

Fear of retribution keeps most grieving families from speaking publicly. We contacted more than two hundred local legal-aid organizations, domestic-violence shelters, and immigrants’-rights groups nationwide, as well as migrant shelters, humanitarian operations, law offices, and mortuaries across Central America. We spoke to families of the deceased. And we gathered the stories of immigrants who had endured other harms—including kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault—as a result of deportations under Obama and Trump.

…As the database grew to include more than sixty cases, patterns emerged. Often, immigrants or their families had warned U.S. officials that they were in danger if sent back. Ana Lopez, the mother of a twenty-year-old gay asylum seeker named Nelson Avila-Lopez, wrote a letter to the U.S. government during Christmas week in 2011, two months after Immigration and Customs Enforcement accidentally deported him to Honduras. Nelson had fled the country at seventeen, after receiving gang threats. He’d entered the U.S. unauthorized and been ordered removed, but an immigration judge then granted him an emergency stay of his deportation so that he could reopen his case for asylum. An ICE agent told his family’s legal team that Nelson was deported because “someone screwed up,” and ICE alleges that the proper office had not been notified of the judge’s stay.

Francisco Cantú, the former Border Patrol guard whose article on border violence was previously linked to here, reviews a new book taking a historical look at the race-based violence and militarism of the American frontier and its modern incarnation in the southern Border Patrol. This is a history of atrocity—including “the lynching of thousands of men, women and children of Mexican descent from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century”—that the Times this week reported is struggling to be preserved. The book is “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America” by the historian Greg Gandin:

Grandin’s chapters on the Border Patrol make evident the origins of many of today’s most egregious border-enforcement practices. When I read of the Mexicans who were routinely jeered at by federal agents in the 1920s as they crossed the bridge from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso, I thought of the agents who mocked a roomful of crying migrant children last summer after they had been separated from their parents. “Aqui tenemos una orquesta,” one agent joked—“We’ve got an orchestra here.” When I read of the workplace police raids that were conducted in the early nineteen-thirties, with the sanction of the Hoover Administration, as a “psychological gesture” to scare deportable migrants, I thought of the “show me your papers” law, passed in Arizona in 2010 and then adopted by other states, with the explicit hope of driving migrants toward self-deportation. When I read of the Border Patrol agents who admitted to reporters in the nineteen-seventies that, when pursuing migrant families, they would often try to apprehend the youngest member first, so that the rest would surrender in order to avoid being separated, I thought, inevitably, of the enactment last year of “zero tolerance,” which turned family separation into a national policy.

Because I served as a Border Patrol agent, from 2008 to 2012, Grandin’s account brought up more personal memories for me as well. Despite its white-supremacist roots, the Border Patrol has evolved into an agency where more than half of its members are of Latinx descent. Just as the military has long promised social mobility to immigrants and minority populations, the Border Patrol provides rare access to financial security and the privileges of full citizenship, especially for those living in rural border communities. In America, even at the individual level, citizenship politics often wins out over identity politics.

  • “Sabrina”, a graphic novel by Nick Drnaso was our latest book club venture. Strong recommendation from The New Yorker and I think the LA Review had the best take on it: “At its best, Drnaso’s work encourages readers—more thoroughly than might art with more explicit rendering of its characters—to recognize the interiority of other people. We pause, reflect, and introduce more of ourselves.”

    As someone unexperienced with graphic novels—I think I’ve only read Archie comics, “Watchmen”, and a few manga that were popular during high school—I was surprised by how well Drnaso accomplishes that expression of interiority through images drawn in the same style as airline emergency instructions (someone else’s comparison that I can’t seem to source at the moment). I had a prejudice to think of all graphic novels as having the subtlety of the “POW!” of comic-book superhero punches, but I found in many cases, they can leave a lot more implied that can text-based novels. Some choice examples (hover over the images for notes):

“I guess the reason I feel skeptical of all that is it makes me feel that books have no potential to speak truth to power, they have no potential as political texts because of the role they play in the cultural economy… because of its position as a commodity.”

 
 
  • The latest (at the time of my initially drafting this) in the Jason Hickel vs. Bill Gates/Steven Pinker/Max Roser debate. The finer points about data quality I don’t really care about (though on that, Branko Milanovic is by far the most qualified). I don’t find this graph being celebrated on Twitter particularly compelling. Poverty rates decreasing across all poverty lines over 25 years—especially these last 25 years—is a very low bar to clear, in my opinion, and will be mostly driven by China’s market reforms. Lost in that level of aggregation is how many countries for which this invariance to poverty line does not hold (which I have no clue about but would like to see). And even in those cases, I’m not sure that’s a worthy counterfactual upon which to celebrate the successes and inherent virtues of market fundamentalism and the Washington Consensus, which this is really about.

  • Final note after attending my last economics lecture at Oxford yesterday:

 
 

What I've been reading, featuring the cruelty of the US-Mexico border and Viktor Orbán’s constitutional coup

  • A former Border Patrol guard reflects on life at the American-Mexican border, which he calls a “permanent zone of exception” with a man-made “disregard for human life”:

The borderlands have slowly become a place where citizens are subject to distinct standards for search and detention, and where due process for noncitizens is often unrecognizable by normal American standards. It is a place where migrants are regularly sentenced at mass hearings in which the fates of as many as seventy-five individuals can be adjudicated one after another in a matter of minutes, after which they are funneled into a burgeoning immigration incarceration complex. It is a landscape often written off as a “wasteland” that is inherently “hostile”—without recognition that it has, in fact, been made to be hostile. Violence does not grow organically in our deserts or at our borders. It has arrived there through policy.

…[the former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service]’s damning admission—that the loss of hundreds of lives on America’s doorstep each year was not enough to cause the government to reevaluate its policy—reveals the extent to which the desert has been weaponized against migrants, and lays bare the fact that the hundreds who continue to die there every year are losing their lives by design. Deterrence-based enforcement has steered the immigration politics of every administration since that of President Clinton, and has resulted in an official tally of more than six thousand migrant deaths along the southern border between 2000 and 2016. This figure, it should be said, does not account for the thousands more who have been reported as missing and never found, not to mention those whose disappearances are never reported in the first place.

…Standing at an altar assembled from remnants of wooden refugee boats, Pope Francis looked out over the port of Lampedusa and asked his audience, “Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept?”

So not to get political, but don’t be this guy:

 

“They do everything by law—there will never be an illegal action. Any one law didn’t look that bad, but if you stack them together it creates this web. That’s why the EU is unable to cope. They look at one thing at a time, but Orbán is a systemic thinker… it’s absolutely ingenious.”

Central European University rector Michael Ignatieff on CEU’s forced relocation to Vienna:

“In Hungary, the law is a tool of power. It looks like a law, sounds like a law, walks and talks like a law, but it’s just a piece of arbitrary discretion.”

Also:

“Around ninety per cent of Hungarian media is now owned or controlled by people with personal connections to Orbán or his party, and eighty per cent of Hungarians who listen to the radio or watch television hear only news that comes from the government.”

  • A selection of the New York Times’ visualizations and multimedia stories from 2018

  • Sally Rooney profiled by The New Yorker. The article mentions how well technology is integrated into her work, which I alluded to in my last post discussing her second novel “Normal People”. I had considered elements like texting and social media to be too clunky and distractingly of-this-era to incorporate well into a book or even a movie, but I’m realizing maybe it’s just that older people and Jonathan Franzen are bad at it in the same way fan fiction botches sex scenes. The article gives this sentence as an example of Rooney doing it well: “I didn't feel like watching the film on my own so I switched it off and just read the Internet instead."

An older novelist might have written “surfed the Internet” or “looked at the Internet,” but “read the Internet” has the ring of native digital literacy. There’s also something current about the flatness of Rooney’s tone; like “breaking the Internet,” “reading the Internet” makes a little joke of the juxtaposition of a puny active verb and the vastness of the thing upon which it is acting.

Trailer for “Searching” (2018), 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

The movie “Searching”, whose gimmick is that all footage is set on a computer or phone screen, also incorporates modern technology extremely well and convincingly. Recommended!

  • Rolling Stone: 20 years on, “How Britney Spears Changed Pop With ‘Baby One More Time’”. I found it to be a poorly written article that doesn’t do much to answer its title question, but I appreciated the prompt to reflect on Spears’ debut album. In retrospect, its opening with “…Baby One More Time”, “(You Drive Me) Crazy”, and “Sometimes” back-to-back-to-back is a hell of a self-introduction.

What I've been reading, featuring "Reporter" by Seymour Hersh, "Normal People" by Sally Rooney, and literary hot takes

  • “Reporter” by Seymour Hersh. Very apt one-word title; Hersh despite or because of his hard-headedness comes across as the living embodiment of the profession. Highly recommend to anyone with any interest in or respect for investigative journalism. Hersh is now one of my few heroes.

    It inspires mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, his career is a monumentally successful story that follows a copyboy from the South Side of Chicago who found his calling and thrived amidst a culture of self-censorship, conformity, and hierarchy with his idealism and work ethic exposing the protected secrets of institutions as powerful as the military, the White House, Capitol Hill, and to a smaller extent, Wall Street and the mafia. It’s astonishing too how single-handedly his successes come (on more than one occasion, Hersh refers to himself as a “lone wolf”) in an industry where the impact of reporting is cynically contingent on the politics of self-censorship, publication prestige, personal vendettas, and competitive one-upmanship: his Pulitzer-winning work uncovering the My Lai massacre came as a freelance journalist. Indeed, when his agent refuses his request to approach The New Yorker about any writing vacancies, Hersh visits its editor’s office without an appointment, secures a job on the spot, then fires his agent. Even when he finds a more permanent home in The New York Times and The New Yorker, the arrangements seem more like the hiring of a truth-seeking mercenary than an employee. But the results speak for themselves and the reader cannot help but admire that Hersh’s body of work has come largely on his own terms, without compromise of his integrity, objectivity, or values.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t shake the disappointment at the apparent rarity of Hersh-type reporters. A common thread in Hersh’s work is empathy for the powerless, which is too often unmatched by his peers. At his first reporting job, he is keen to break the story of a horrifying murder of a Chicago family by arson, but relaying the details to his editor, he is asked: “Ah, my good, dear, energetic Mr. Hersh. Do the, alas, poor, unfortunate victims happen to be of the Negro persuasion?” Hersh answers in the affirmative and the story is reduced to a single sentence along the lines of “Five Negroes died in a fire last night on the Southwest Side.” He repeatedly attributes this uncommon compassion, which manifests in his antiwar stance and skepticism of the conduct of every administration from Kennedy to Obama, to his upbringing among minorities in the South Side. I found it difficult then to resist the cynical thought that were it not for this man’s unlikely ascent to the media elite, the brutal rapes of murders of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians and the clandestine bombing of Cambodia would have not just been unquestioned, but entirely unknown and the Abu Ghraib abuses underreported. Sad enough that they went largely unpunished, which is in keeping with a recurring theme of the book that is maybe not emphasized enough: that for all the work that can go into an investigation, it is often not enough to have the information out there, so to speak. Change is repeatedly dulled by public disinterest, the industry declining to follow up a competitor’s story, a newspaper’s reach, a public refutation of fact, or irresponsible coverage.

    Underpinning all this pessimism is the certainty that the landscape of investigative journalism is much worse now than in Hersh’s heyday. Hersh alludes to this in the introduction, perhaps because reflecting on the sad state of affairs in an epilogue would sour the mood: “…it’s very painful to think I might not have accomplished what I did if I were at work in the chaotic and unstructured journalism world of today. Of course I’m still trying.”

  • “Normal People” by Sally Rooney (h/t Helena). Really enjoyed this and am finding it difficult to say why without referring to specific details of my personal life. The excellent pacing made it a breeze to read despite its narrative unfolding over several years and it was interesting how modern and accessible the writing was—for example, it’s set in Ireland, but could generically have been set anywhere in the world owing to the lack of idiosyncratic detail and language.

    My mom read it after me and found it unrelatable because of how the characters melodramatize relationships and complicate issues that could be resolved very easily. Maybe this is a reflection of our times, though. My mom moved to Manila after a childhood in the province and stayed there until she was married and had three kids, while I’ve moved countries six times since graduating high school and nine times overall so the constant connection and reconnection in young adulthood that defines the central long-term relationship of the novel is a recurrent theme of my own life. I’m also just a sucker for stories that do a good job of aging and progressing platonic or romantic relationships alike over long time periods like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Boyhood.

  • The legacy of Atticus Finch in light of the December premiere of the Aaron Sorkin Broadway adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which is explicitly influenced by the revelations of “Go Set A Watchman” and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Perhaps his perfection was only ever as a father, and not as a civil-rights crusader. He teaches Scout and Jem a kind of radical empathy that he himself cannot sustain but that they might grow up to embody. That is the version of Atticus still beloved by many of the book’s readers: not a noble lawyer on a par with actual civil-rights heroes such as Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, or Morris Dees but a compassionate, courageous single dad raising his children as best he can.

…Not everyone, however, was inclined to agree, and not long after Rudin announced that Sorkin’s play would première in December, 2018, the estate of Harper Lee filed a lawsuit, alleging that the adaptation violated the spirit of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” At the heart of the dispute was a disagreement about the essential nature of Atticus. According to the estate, the character, as written by Lee, was “a model of wisdom, integrity, and professionalism,” while Sorkin had made him into an “apologist for the racial status quo.”

…In this new production, the empathy for which Atticus has always been celebrated— his belief, as Sorkin sees it, in the “goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists”—would be his fundamental flaw. Of course, framing Atticus in this way compounds the complication of putting him at the center of the story: the tragedy, it suggest, isn’t that a black man loses his life, but that a white man loses his case.”

  • Two Roads for the New French Right: “Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic populist outbursts. Ideas are being developed, and transnational networks for disseminating them are being established… In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern… France is a good place to start.”

  • Two recent books imagine the lives of the overlooked female characters in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey respectively. I did a similar exercise in high school imagining a dream of Penelope’s that is only alluded to in Book XIX.

  • From Twitter: “Give me your spiciest, maddest, most sacrilegious book opinion.” Some embedded below. One of mine is that books are a poor medium for comedy and those that are joke-dense enough that Humor is one of its listed genres are almost always bad, especially memoirs. I’ll generally dismiss books that feature a critic calling it “uproarious” on the front cover. I haven’t come across a book funnier than Weird Twitter or Demi Adejuyigbe’s Instagram stories on a good day.

    • I’ve started a GoodReads account and will try at some point to add some text to some of my reviews. Also thinking of starting a LetterBoxd.